HOUSTON (AP) — Working on a math assignment, the 6-year-old girl placed Popsicle stick after Popsicle stick in a horizontal line on the table. “Uno, dos, tres,” she counted, all the way to 10.
Next, the kindergartner, Isabelle Kao, plotted 15 dominoes.
“Cual es más largo?” (which is longer?) her teacher, Graciela Martinez, asked. She gave the girl a hint, extending her arms wide.
Isabelle pointed correctly to the longer line — the sticks.
Martinez’s class at Mark Twain Elementary in southwest Houston is one of a growing number of two-way dual-language classrooms, where native English speakers like Isabelle and native Spanish speakers learn together.
Like school systems across the nation, several local districts — including Houston, Alief, Clear Creek, Pasadena and Spring Branch — have expanded dual-language programs, as more parents want their children to grow up bilingual and studies generally show positive academic results.
Still, districts can face a series of challenges in starting such programs, including persuading anxious parents, recruiting enough bilingual teachers and ensuring effective instruction at a time when young children are ripe for learning languages but at risk of sliding behind their peers.
“Dual language is a difficult thing to do well,” said Julie Sugarman, senior research associate at the Center for Applied Linguistics. “But this really works for helping English learners develop English.” At the same time, she said, English speakers gain fluency in another language.
Speaking in Spanish, teacher Graciela Martinez works with kindergartner Alejandro Gerlein, 6, on a lesson about weight measurement in the dual-language program at Mark Twain Elementary.
Across Texas, more than 66,800 public school students are enrolled in two-way dual-language programs, about twice as many as in 2009-2010, according to Texas Education Agency data.
The percentage of students in the programs remains small but is rising. The Houston Independent School District, the state’s largest district, plans to double its number of elementary schools with dual-language programs to 28 next year.
At most of the schools in HISD and across Texas, however, the majority of Spanish-speaking students take traditional bilingual classes, where instruction is heavy in Spanish in the early grade levels and phased out as they age.
In dual-language programs, instruction in Spanish (or whatever the second language is) continues. The models vary. Kindergarten students typically receive instruction in Spanish either half the time or 80 percent to 90 percent of the time. By fifth grade, the instruction usually is split evenly between the two languages.
“Our parents that select dual language, they see being bilingual, biliterate and bicultural as an asset. They also like the idea of their students being in classes with other types of kids,” said Kari Torres, a supervisor in Alief ISD.
The southwest Houston district piloted a dual-language program in 2009 and plans to expand it to most elementary schools and all six of its intermediate schools by 2017.
A growing number of schools also offer one-way dual-language programs, with only Spanish speakers who continue to learn partly in their native language.
Martinez, a veteran teacher at Twain Elementary, grew up speaking Spanish in Port Lavaca, a bayside town about 130 miles southwest of Houston. When she entered first grade in the late 1960s, she said she knew three words in English: yes, no and restroom.
She was plopped into an English-only class.
“I had a teacher that was not very receptive to Spanish speakers,” she told the Houston Chronicle (http://bit.ly/1ghfqVe ). “I was spanked, called ‘a stupid Mexican’ in front of everybody.”
Martinez stopped speaking Spanish until college. Then she decided to become a bilingual teacher.
“I don’t want anybody else to suffer,” she said last week from her principal’s office.
Martinez began teaching traditional bilingual classes at Twain in 1993. A couple of years later, she helped write a grant proposal to start a dual-language program there, trying to draw the neighborhood’s small Spanish-speaking population to the school.
Today, Twain’s dual-language program has a waiting list, and participating students do well on standardized tests, whether in Spanish or English, according to Principal Melissa Patin.
In her kindergarten class, Martinez uses pictures and body movements – like pointing to Popsicle sticks and widening her arms to indicate large versus small – to teach students not just vocabulary but more complex math and science concepts.
“Do some of our children have problems? Yes,” Martinez said. “Do we have to work extra hard with them? Yes.”
“Which is the same as in any other classroom,” Principal Patin added.
Gracie Guerrero, HISD’s assistant superintendent over multilingual programs, said school officials have been planning for months to start the 14 new Spanish dual-language programs. They expect to draw about 900 kindergarten students, she said. The district’s current programs enroll about 2,000 students.
Most of the new schools have opted for a 50-50 model, where instruction will be split between English and Spanish in kindergarten, Guerrero said. That differs from Twain Elementary and the district’s other programs, where most kindergarten classes are in Spanish 80 percent of the time; the even split starts in third grade.
Guerrero acknowledged that research shows English-speaking students do better with more Spanish at the younger grades but said that model was a tougher sell. Parents of students speaking both languages worry their children won’t learn English fast enough or will fall behind. The approach also requires more bilingual teachers, who are in short supply.
“Any form of dual-language education is better than no form at all,” Guerrero said, adding that she suspects schools will up their Spanish instruction as parents become more comfortable.
“Our kids will have more than a conversational Spanish,” she said. “They’re going to read it. They’re going to write it. They’re going to be able to have high-level conversations with folks who are very much educated.”
Clear Creek ISD, which has a small but growing population of English language learners, started its second-dual language program at an elementary school last year. It follows a 50-50 model.
“For us in this area, it’s difficult to get teachers,” said Tacy King, who oversees Clear Creek’s programs for English language learners.
Clear Creek ISD offers a $3,000 salary stipend for bilingual teachers, more than double HISD’s offer.
At Twain Elementary on a recent afternoon, Isabelle and her classmates mimicked their teacher as she knelt on the floor and curled into a ball, like an egg.
“Un huevo,” Martinez said during a lesson on the life cycle of a frog.
Isabelle knew few Spanish words before starting school. Her mom, Madeline Kao, hails from Puerto Rico and speaks Spanish and English, but she said she spoke little Spanish to her youngest daughter as a toddler. Isabelle’s dad, whose family is Taiwanese, also speaks little Spanish.
After seven months of kindergarten, Isabelle now talks to her mom in Spanish at home.
“It amazes me how much she’s learned,” Kao said. “She’s getting more interested. It’s very cute.”